Why Orthodox Jewish Feminists Don't Represent Me

Women don't need egalitarian ritual observances. What we need are more leadership opportunities that don't impede on our ability to fulfill the mitzvot by which we are already bound.

Gil Cohen-Magen

At their most recent gathering in New York, the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA) discussed its advances in advocating for increased ritual observances for girls and women. At this so-called Unconference, participants lauded the group's push for a more “authentic halakhic voice” in daily life for women. However, it appears the participants failed to notice their efforts are excluding the preferences of many Modern Orthodox women. Those women, of whom I am one, fear their silence on ritual inclusion may be misinterpreted as agreement, when, in fact, JOFA's preferences do not represent us at all.

JOFA is not doing the work I need done. Rather than focusing on ritual inclusion for women, which does not actually affect my daily life, I would much rather the Orthodox feminist alliance champion leadership opportunities for women in the larger Orthodox community. Unlike egalitarian ritual observances, this would engender real change to women's status in the community.

In my community, women are directors of the mikveh association, heads of schools, foundations and girls’ learning initiatives, and we are physicians, lawyers, CEOs, CFOs and PhDs. My goal as an Orthodox Jewish feminist is to work to ensure equal footing on academic, political and business levels for all women, while maintaining active and healthy Jewish communities with our families. Synagogue rituals, especially those that relate to time-bound mitzvot, don’t play a role here at all.

As such, I try to use my time wisely, cognizant of my freedom from time-bound mitzvot. I have never found my center in daily davening (praying) with a minyan (prayer quorum), though I certainly respect the views of women who have found this to be meaningful. On my visits to shul on Shabbos, I have never sought to join a women’s minyan because I prefer quiet praying and thinking. Also, I was and remain greatly appreciative of the traditional structure of the service, never feeling excluded because that valuable quiet time serves an important purpose. The mechitza protects me from external view. The bird’s eye view from the balcony that women have in many Orthodox synagogues also fascinates me; I feel powerful and approving as I quietly oversee the men as they fulfill their religious duties. This is the mesorah (legacy) of Jewish women, and it belongs to me too.

As a wife, I have gained a deeper understanding of time-bound mitzvot when my husband shares his ritual schedule with me. When I became a new parent, I missed attending shul, mostly for that quiet time, but I was all the more relieved that I was not obliged to observe time-bound mitzvot. It is implausible to even attempt to fulfill those daily obligations while dealing with the needs of young children. When I returned to work, I wondered how a woman could consider taking on time-bound obligations like tefillah (prayer) with a minyan three times a day.

Women who find halakhic workarounds to advocate for more equal treatment in ritual observance should and must take on the obligations in their entirety, while also not shirking any of the mitzvot specifically asked of them as women. You advocate for reading the Torah and Megillah together? Good. So read the Torah three times each week, and say shacharit (the morning service), mincha (afternoon) and maariv (night) too. Because that’s what men do, and that’s what they have been doing for our entire history. You want to attend a “hagbah workshop,” (raising the Torah), as some did at the Unconference? Well if that Torah falls to the ground, God forbid, be prepared to divide among yourselves a fast equaling 40 days – just as men are bound to do. Carry the full burden of our mesorah, as men do, if you feel you must. But this might be a tall order if you – like me – also have a family.

At the Unconference, Chavie Kahn, co-chair of UJA-New York, shared a quote that has been attributed to Elizabeth Warren: “If you don’t have a seat at the table, you’re probably on the menu.” I vigorously oppose this statement, which, in the context of JOFA's advocacy for egalitarian ritual observances, insinuates that all my other obligations as a woman are valueless, simply because I have been silent in this debate.

I am not at said table because I am at home with my children and doing my job, which I take seriously. I have a number of mitzvot that I am obligated in and that serve as my primary focus: to be a pillar of my family; and to provide a basis of Torah and mitzvot for the children I have the privilege of raising. These mitzvot are not minor, less important, or less equal to me than any of the mitzvot beholden by men. My value as a woman does not exist in comparison to a man’s and I don’t think any amount of Torah-reading or tefillah services will put women on a more equal footing.

My plea to Orthodox feminists: Not every woman fits the gender stereotypes you espouse. You and I share a desire to raise the status of women in our community, but our paths for achieving that are in direct contrast. I believe it will be achieved not via egalitarian ritual observances, but by creating more leadership opportunities for women – especially those that don't impede on our ability to fulfill the mitzvot to which we are already bound.

Elizabeth Kratz is senior editor at the Jewish Link of New Jersey.